Tag Archives: viral marketing

Influence and Butterflies

Seems like “influence” is a key theme in social media, these days. An example among several others:

Influenceur, autorité, passeur de culture ou l’un de ces singes exubérants | Mario tout de go.

In that post, Mario Asselin brings together a number of notions which are at the centre of current discussions about social media. The core notion seems to be that “influence” replaces “authority” as a quality or skill some people have, more than others. Some people are “influencers” and, as such, they have a specific power over others. Such a notion seems to be widely held in social media and numerous services exist which are based on the notion that “influence” can be measured.
I don’t disagree. There’s something important, online, which can be called “influence” and which can be measured. To a large extent, it’s related to a large number of other concepts such as fame and readership, popularity and network centrality. There are significant differences between all of those concepts but they’re still related. They still depict “social power” which isn’t coercive but is the basis of an obvious stratification.
In some contexts, this is what people mean by “social capital.” I originally thought people meant something closer to Bourdieu but a fellow social scientist made me realise that people are probably using Putnam’s concept instead. I recently learnt that George W. Bush himself used “political capital” in a sense which is fairly similar to what most people seem to mean by “social capital.” Even in that context, “capital” is more specific than “influence.” But the core notion is the same.
To put it bluntly:
Some people are more “important” than others.
Social marketers are especially interested in such a notion. Marketing as a whole is about influence. Social marketing, because it allows for social groups to be relatively amorphous, opposes influence to authority. But influence maintains a connection with “top-down” approaches to marketing.
My own point would be that there’s another kind of influence which is difficult to pinpoint but which is highly significant in social networks: the social butterfly effect.
Yep, I’m still at it after more than three years. It’s even more relevant now than it was then. And I’m now able to describe it more clearly and define it more precisely.
The social butterfly effect is a social network analogue to the Edward Lorenz’s well-known “butterfly effect. ” As any analogy, this connection is partial but telling. Like Lorenz’s phrase, “social butterfly effect” is more meaningful than precise. One thing which makes the phrase more important for me is the connection with the notion of a “social butterfly,” which is both a characteristic I have been said to have and a concept I deem important in social science.
I define social butterflies as people who connect to diverse network clusters. Community enthusiast Christine Prefontaine defined social butterflies within (clustered) networks, but I think it’s useful to separate out network clusters. A social butterfly’s network is rather sparse as, on the whole, a small number of people in it have direct connections with one another. But given the topography of most social groups, there likely are clusters within that network. The social butterfly connects these clusters. When the social butterfly is the only node which can connect these clusters directly, her/his “influence” can be as strong as that of a central node in one of these clusters since s/he may be able to bring some new element from one cluster to another.
I like the notion of “repercussion” because it has an auditory sense and it resonates with all sorts of notions I think important without being too buzzwordy. For instance, as expressions like “ripple effect” and “domino effect” are frequently used, they sound like clichés. Obviously, so does “butterfly effect” but I like puns too much to abandon it. From a social perspective, the behaviour of a social butterfly has important “repercussions” in diverse social groups.
Since I define myself as a social butterfly, this all sounds self-serving. And I do pride myself in being a “connector.” Not only in generational terms (I dislike some generational metaphors). But in social terms. I’m rarely, if ever, central to any group. But I’m also especially good at serving as a contact between people from different groups.
Yay, me! 🙂
My thinking about the social butterfly effect isn’t an attempt to put myself on some kind of pedestal. Social butterflies typically don’t have much “power” or “prestige.” Our status is fluid/precarious. I enjoy being a social butterfly but I don’t think we’re better or even more important than anybody else. But I do think that social marketers and other people concerned with “influence” should take us into account.
I say all of this as a social scientist. Some parts of my description are personalized but I’m thinking about a broad stance “from society’s perspective.” In diverse contexts, including this blog, I have been using “sociocentric” in at least three distinct senses: class-based ethnocentrism, a special form of “altrocentrism,” and this “society-centred perspective.” These meanings are distinct enough that they imply homonyms. Social network analysis is typically “egocentric” (“ego-centred”) in that each individual is the centre of her/his own network. This “egocentricity” is both a characteristic of social networks in opposition to other social groups and a methodological issue. It specifically doesn’t imply egotism but it does imply a move away from pre-established social categories. In this sense, social network analysis isn’t “society-centred” and it’s one reason I put so much emphasis on social networks.
In the context of discussions of influence, however, there is a “society-centredness” which needs to be taken into account. The type of “influence” social marketers and others are so interested in relies on defined “spaces.” In some ways, if “so-and-so is influential,” s/he has influence within a specific space, sphere, or context, the boundaries of which may be difficult to define. For marketers, this can bring about the notion of a “market,” including in its regional and demographic senses. This seems to be the main reason for the importance of clusters but it also sounds like a way to recuperate older marketing concepts which seem outdated online.
A related point is the “vertical” dimension of this notion of “influence.” Whether or not it can be measured accurately, it implies some sort of scale. Some people are at the top of the scale, they’re influencers. Those at the bottom are the masses, since we take for granted that pyramids are the main models for social structure. To those of us who favour egalitarianism, there’s something unpalatable about this.
And I would say that online contacts tend toward some form of egalitarianism. To go back to one of my favourite buzzphrases, the notion of attention relates to reciprocity:

It’s an attention economy: you need to pay attention to get attention.

This is one thing journalism tends to “forget.” Relationships between journalists and “people” are asymmetrical. Before writing this post, I read Brian Storm’s commencement speech for the Mizzou J-School. While it does contain some interesting tidbits about the future of journalism, it positions journalists (in this case, recent graduates from an allegedly prestigious school of journalism) away from the masses. To oversimplify, journalists are constructed as those who capture people’s attention by the quality of their work, not by any two-way relationship. Though they rarely discuss this, journalists, especially those in mainstream media, typically perceive themselves as influencers.

Attention often has a temporal dimension which relates to journalism’s obsession with time. Journalists work in time-sensitive contexts, news are timely, audiences spend time with journalistic contents, and journalists fight for this audience time as a scarce resource, especially in connection to radio and television. Much of this likely has to do with the fact that journalism is intimately tied to advertising.

As I write this post, I hear on a radio talk show a short discussion about media coverage of Africa. The topic wakes up the africanist in me. The time devoted to Africa in almost any media outside of Africa is not only very limited but spent on very specific issues having to do with Africa. In mainstream media, Africa only “matters” when major problems occur. Even though most parts of Africa are peaceful and there many fabulously interesting things occuring throughout the continent, Africa is the “forgotten” continent.

A connection I perceive is that, regardless of any other factor, Africans are taken to not be “influential.” What makes this notion especially strange to an africanist is that influence tends to be a very important matter throughout the continent. Most Africans I know or have heard about have displayed a very nuanced and acute sense of “influence” to the extent that “power” often seems less relevant when working in Africa than different elements of influence. I know full well that, to outsiders to African studies, these claims may sound far-fetched. But there’s a lot to be said about the importance of social networks in Africa and this could help refine a number of notions that I have tagged in this post.

Swiss Made Smiling

Swiss Smile

Viral marketing at its best.

The video works well at exactly the task it was set up to accomplish.

The song is my new theme song. Downloaded the sound file and would play it in a loop if I had a portable media player.

I love the mission, the concept, the song, the video, the logo, the lyrics, the people, the humour.

The only problem I have is that the t-shirt is too expensive for me and I would really love to wear it and make the whole thing even more viral.

To be perfectly honest, the video moved me. It filled exactly the spot it had to fill.

Random acts of kindness.

Facebook Platform: Post-Game Analysis

Just read Marc Andreessen’s very insightful analysis of what happened with the Facebook Platform (the development of new applications) during the first three weeks after its launch.

blog.pmarca.com: Analyzing the Facebook Platform, three weeks in

Andreessen’s entry was written in June and provides an appropriate snapshot of what people must have been thinking at the point.

What now?

Well… My perceptions are only as a lowly user of Facebook, not as a developer. And though I’m fairly active on Facebook, I can’t claim to be a Facebook “Power User.” Yet, as an ethnographer, I can’t help but notice something going on.

The Facebook Platform was an important event in Facebook’s history but many things have happened since Facebook started out, a few years ago. I only joined during the Fall semester, 2005 and I wasn’t very active on it until February, 2007. But I now use Facebook rather extensively and end up talking about it on several occasions. I’m really not sure about the timeframe and I’m too lazy to look things up but I’m hoping to find out at some point. Comments are obviously welcome.

One of the most important things in Facebook’s history was when they opened registration to the wider world of (English-speaking) Internet users as a whole. Prior to this, Facebook was restricted to university, college, and school campuses. For a little while, some businesses could have their own networks. But a real shift happened when Fb opened the gates and let everyone in. There were some discontentment on the part of long-time users but, on the whole, it was a rather smooth transition. At about the same time, the “Mini-Feed” feature was set up. With it, users can see pretty much everything their friends are doing, from status updates and friend adds to wall posts and pokes. This feature also occasioned some controversy but the Fb team reacted promptly and rather openly. On the whole, this was handled rather well.

I think one of the first killer apps, before the release of the actual semi-open platform, was Facebook Mobile, which lets users interact with Fb through SMS. The reason I think this was an important application is that the Canadian Fb community seems to have at the same time Fb Mobile became available on Canadian providers. Oh, sure, it might be pure coincidence. But the feature probably made me more active on Fb and chances are that it happened with other users.

Over the past year, there has been a fair deal of coverage of Fb in both tech and general media. Much of it has been rather critical if not outright alarming or inflammatory. But the end-result was increased exposure to Facebook. For instance, the first time I heard about Facebook was in a podcast version of a talk at Indiana University about online privacy (still a very important issue). The presenter had analysed some trends in what information students were willing to share on Facebook. Being interested in online networks, I decided to join Fb out of mere curiosity and, right away, some of my students added me as a friend. Concepts like “network effect” and “viral marketing” apply too obviously to such cases to be worth explaining.

The launch of the Facebook Platform happened in this context. As a non-coder, I was personally impressed by the rapidity with which developers were able to release Facebook applications. It felt as if new applications sprung up within hours of the platform release. It probably took longer but it really looked like an almost-synchronised release for the platform and new apps.

Andreessen talks about the platform launch from the point of view of application developers. As a non-coding Fb user, I think the apps were quite important in intensifying the buzz about Fb but I don’t think applications themselves have changed Fb that much. Yes, people are much more active on Fb thanks to cool apps. And some of these apps are actually very useful. But, to me, there’s a clear continuity between Fb groups and apps (even though they are completely different in other ways). In fact, an important similarity between apps and groups is summarized in the name for a Facebook group: “I read the group name, I laugh, I join, I never look at it again.” Andreessen alluded to this, in a way, but the important point is that both group memberships and application additions are more toward the “passive” than the “active” part of the online behaviour continuum. In all the discussions about online “bubbles” and “busts,” such issues should be kept in mind.

Many application developers seem not to understand this. They create apps which create very little value to users and try to monetize by forcing application users to invite friends or to click on some irrelevant links. Bad form, IMHO. Like most other Fb users, I add apps when I see friends adding them. But I’m increasingly weary of the adding apps which seem too eager to disseminate quickly. IOW: please, pretty please, stop the “application invite” madness!

I also notice that several Facebook users are sorting out their applications and groups. Part of it is pure information overload (many people left a local group after being sent daily updates of blog posts in their Fb mailboxes). But part of it is simply about finding what place Fb plays in our lives. Sure, many of us were excited about the possibilities and most of us are increasingly active on Fb. But after the initial excitement, we go into a phase during which Fb is just a tool.

And that might be a Good Thing(tm).

The Participating Minority

[Update: The original article was about traffic, not user base. Should have read more carefully. Doh!]

Interesting stats about blogging and “viral participation” from Technorati’s Dave Sifry and Hitwise’s Bill Tancer. Also summarised on Ars Technica.

Bottom line: Despite extreme growth, only small (some would say “positively tiny”) fractions of the user base [traffic] for participatory Websites like YouTube and Flickr contribute any content. New blogs are created but a smaller proportion of them are active. Tagging, however, is taking off.

This can all be fascinating, on a social level. One thing that gets me is that those figures challenge a notion widely held among members of the participating minority itself. Even the usual figures of 10%, given for textual contributions to forums, mailing-lists, and blogs seems fairly low to those of us who write a lot, anywhere. In other words, it might well be that individual contributors are proportionally more influential than originally thought.

So, is this a trend toward less participation or are Internet users finding other ways to participate, besides contributing original content? Maybe users spend more time on social networking services like Facebook and MySpace. Even “passive participation” can be important, on SNS.

One thing people seem to forget is that private communication (email, IM, VOIP…) is alive and well. Not that I have figures to support the claim but my experience tends to tell me that a lot is happening behind closed doors. Oh, sure, it’s not “Web 2.0 culture,” it’s not even Web-based. It’s not even the sixth Internet culture, as it’s more in continuity with the fourth Internet culture of “virtual communities.” But it’s probably more influential, even in “epidemiological” terms, than “viral marketing.”